Last week I promised to tell you about “Monica” (not her real name), a young woman who has participated in many of our programs with The Night Minstry over the last 2 summers and the winter in between. “Monica” has a pretty smile that has thousands of unspoken words behind it. Her smile isn’t happy per se. It’s a little crooked. It’s not big. Her smile looks a little bit inward, somehow. But when she smiles, it speaks volumes. It seems to say that she knows she’s safe for a moment. It seems to speak of fleeting contentment. She looks not like she trusts you, but like she’s considering offering her trust. This isn’t a simple story; and it’s not entirely a “feel-good” story. “Monica” is tight-lipped about her life, but it’s clear she’s weathered a lot. It’s also clear she hasn’t come out the other side unscathed. Her scars show – literally.
I first met “Monica” at the Night Minstry Youth Outreach bus – I told you last week about meeting “Bob” there. “Monica” was much less outgoing than “Bob.” She interacted with me, but said very little. Her style of interaction was confusing and very reserved. She seemed shy and uncomfortable – uncomfortable with me and uncomfortable with herself. I was surprised when she showed up for the climbing program the next day. I wasn’t surprised when she said that she probably wasn’y going to climb. We all told her that was fine – that we wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to do; and that we thought she might like it and she could change her mind and join in if she wanted to.
Truly, I don’t remember if she climbed that day. I think she did. Over the next year we got used to her pattern – she would tell us she wasn’t going to participate, she was just “going to watch” – and then she’d be on the wall, on the water, or on a bike. That first day climbing we noticed that she had cuts on her arms. She seemed ambivalent about offering us her trust – and that was beginning to make a lot of sense.
The next month, she said something at the end of a navigation program at North Park Village Nature Center that set off some emotion and drama in the group. As we sat down at the picnic tables to debrief the program, she looked around and said “all the crackers are together.” She said it under her breath – but I think she meant for us to hear it. As it turned out, I was one of only two people who heard her comment. I was stunned to hear her say it. In my utter surprise, I responded without thinking – and was appalled at how I responded. Because what I said was, “No, there are two more over there.” Plain truth about where the white people in the group were sitting – that she had missed the two sitting behind her. And not responding in the least to the offensive language she used; to the undercurrent of mistrust, suspicion and challenge; or to the fact that she put it out there without being direct or honest about putting it out there… Or, very simply, to the issue of racial prejudice as it plays out in our lives.
The other person who heard “Monica’s” comment got quite angry and responded in that emotion. EVERYONE heard him, and the group was on a dramatic roll.
So – I was appalled at what was going down; Christine was thrown off her game trying to debrief the program; and emotions were running high. For a little while we got back on track with the planned debrief. But when we’d all settled down a little, Christine and I had a very brief conversation, and brought the group discussion back to the topic of race. In the course of the conversation, “Monica” asked me directly, “Are you uncomfortable with certain people?” I wanted to say “no.” How could I possibly stand there and say “yes?” But direct questions of how we experience race are more complicated than that. “Monica” asked me a direct question, and I knew she ‘d know if I was anything less than 100% honest. I asked her if she was asking me if I was uncomfortable with black people. She said yes.
I stammered for a little while, and then told her that yes, sometimes I am. I said that I don’t think black people are less than me in any way – but that yes, sometimes I’m uncomfortable. That sometimes I worry I’m going to say something stupid or offensive without knowing it. That there are some words that black people can use with each other that I can’t – shouldn’t and never will! – use. And that when black people call each other those names in my presence, even in jest, I get uncomfortable. I said that I was uncomfortable with the fact that our staff was mostly white, and the group wasn’t. I said that I have the best staff in the world – and that it felt offensive to the group to have such a dis-connect between the racial make-up of our staff and the racial make-up of the group.
I tried to be as honest and as clear as I could be. I didn’t like it one little bit. And it was no fun doing it with an audience.
What ensued was an open and honest conversation about the role race plays in our daily interactions.
As the group left, “Monica” looked back at me. She made eye contact and held it until the group was out of sight. I wish I could say that I knew what was happening as she held eye contact with me, but I didn’t. I was pretty sure she was taking my measure – and I didn’t know if I measured up.
“Monica” came to the kayaking program the next month. She smiled when she saw us – and seemed pleased that we remembered her. She told us again that she probably wasn’t going to participate; that she was “just going to watch.” We told her again that we wouldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to. She had a great time on the water that day. Pictures of her that day show her smiling her smile that has so much behind it. It was the first time I felt like she’d decided to offer a bit of her trust. I took that as a precious gift.
In the year following these programs, “Monica” has continued to participate in almost every program we’ve run with The Night Ministry. She has continued to indirectly bring up race, and waited to see how we responded. We’ve tried to respond directly each time. She has continued to be tight-lipped. But she has also continued to smile. She has continued to smile in that way that seems to say that she is considering offering us her trust.
And while she has remained tight-lipped, she has also started to talk with our staff just a little bit. She told Stephanie that she felt like hurting herself. She did it with her talent for saying something in a way that puts us on the spot and can feel just a little bit manipulative – saying it just as the group was leaving. Stephanie made a quick safety plan with “Monica”; told her she was going to talk with The Night Ministry staff; and made a follow-up plan with The Night Ministry staff.
Like me, Stephanie had to be honest and appropriate in an uncomforatable situation. “Monica” offered enough trust to tell Stephanie that she sometimes hurt herself – but would Stephanie respond in a way worthy of trust by taking appropriate action and side-stepping drama?; or would she lose “Monica’s” trust again by agreeing not to tell anyone or by being scared and glossing over what “Monica” said, and in the process not taking “Monica’s” safety seriously?
This past June, one month after that first climbing program, “Monica” climbed with us again at the same wall. We noted out loud that she had NOT told us she probably wasn’t going to climb; that she had NOT told us she was probably “just going to watch.” We also noted that she looked much more comfortable on the wall. That she looked more comfortable in her body as she climbed, and that she climbed with more confidence and finesse as she climbed higher than she ever had.
“Monica” said very little. –But she smiled.
I take her offer of trust as something precious.